October 15th | Posted In Philadelphia, Policy

Recycling Right

By Phil Bresee & Michelle Feldman


Every day seems to bring another good piece of “green” news in Philadelphia: new parks in underutilized spaces, bike share, and the success of City initiatives like Green City, Clean Waters, TreePhilly, and the new energy benchmarking program, to name a few.

One success story you might not know as much about, however, is the City’s recycling program. So let’s look at the facts:

Since Mayor Nutter took office in 2008, Philadelphia has seen a 155% increase in tonnage of materials recycled

New materials have been consistently added to the City’s recycling program, including cartons and cardboard

The Philadelphia Streets Department has distributed tens of thousands of recycling bins to residents in every corner of the City

195,000 households have signed up for the Recycling Rewards incentive program, where Philadelphians can earn points for recycling and then redeem those points for coupons and discounts (Eligible, but not signed up? Sign up here! Signed up already? Make sure you’re logging in to your account and collecting your rewards!)

And if you’re a business owner, the Streets Department has you covered with their new Business Recycling Toolkit

All of this has made a measureable impact, too. According to the City’s Recycling Office and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Philadelphia’s recycling efforts in 2012 alone helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. Not to mention, the City actually makes money from recycling (to the tune of about ten million dollars a year).

So, great, right? We’re doing a really awesome job at recycling in Philadelphia. Go, team!

But that’s not quite the end of the story.

Increasing participation in Philadelphia’s recycling program can too often lead to (innocent) recycling mistakes. As we approach America Recycles Day (a national holiday for us recycling fanatics), it’s important to remind ourselves of what you should and shouldn’t throw in your blue bin.

First and foremost, no plastic bags! They tear easily and end up damaging processing equipment at recycling facilities. Return your plastic shopping bags to specially-marked drop off locations at supermarkets or big box stores. Better yet, figure out a trick to remind yourself to bring that reusable bag along with you to the grocery store, and cut down on your usage of plastic bags. And in no circumstances should you put your recyclables in an opaque or black plastic bag. They’ll be mistaken as regular trash.

Other common “problem items” found in Philadelphia’s recycling stream include:

Food waste (consider composting!)

Garden Hoses

Wire and Christmas Tree Lights

Small appliances

And if in doubt, consult the Streets Department’s comprehensive list of what is and is not recyclable in the City.

With so many exciting things happening all over Philadelphia, it can be easy to forget about every-day municipal functions like our recycling program, and how they impact the health of the City. So we leave you with a call to action: keep up to date on what you can and cannot recycle in Philadelphia, and urge at least one friend to do the same. Then ask that friend to tell someone else. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Phil Bresee is the City of Philadelphia’s Recycling Director, where he oversees and supports programs and policy planning for the City’s recycling program, one of the largest in the country.

Michelle Feldman is the Executive Director of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, and Outreach Chair for YIP. You can reach her with questions about recycling at, or find her on twitter at @michelle92486

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